I had heard about A Russian Course by Alexander Lipson but had never seen a copy until the excellent Songdog gave me his battered old coursebook. The first chapter starts off:

Как живут ударники?
Ударники живут хорошо.
How do shock-workers live?
Shock-workers live well.

It continues “Where do they work? They work in factories. How do they work? They work with enthusiasm. What do they do in parks? In parks they think about life. About what life? About life in factories. That’s how shock-workers live!” The chapter continues with a discussion of бездельники, or loafers: “How do loafers live? At work they steal pencils. In parks they conduct themselves badly. Yes, comrades. That is how loafers live!” In later chapters there are choruses of male concrete-workers (“Our plant is a concrete plant. Our brigade is a concrete one. Our plant is a concrete plant. And our task is concrete. Concrete, concrete, concrete, concrete…”) and discussions of philosophy (“What is life? What are people? I want to know what life is.”). I suspect I would have learned more in college if I’d had this wacky text, except that its first edition came out in 1974, a couple years after I graduated. And in case you’re thinking it’s amusing but impractical, read what John has to say:

I respond well to linguistic approaches such as the one Lipson pioneered for Russian. Thank Bog I used Lipson’s books for 2 years, I really, really understand the structure of Russian in ways that those who learned from Soviet sponsored texbooks do not. His choice of vocabulary was pretty weird, though. I learned the word for “concrete mixer” before I learned the word for “airplane”, for instance, because one of the dialogues we had to memorize concerned a lazy construction worker. Lo and behold when I got to the USSR I wound up working on a construction site. Full of lazy (and drunk) construction workers. Working on – you guessed it – the betonomeshalka.

And what other textbook will teach you how to say “Comrade director, nobody loves me. Nobody understands me. I’m alone. I’m alone”?


  1. Hey, maybe I could get sponsorship for the Yan-nhangu learner’s guide by putting in phrases like that – you pay $20 and I make sure there’s your favourite example sentence…

  2. So grand. I had a geometry text, where the points on the diagrams spelled out words that strung together thematically. Getting the humor of a language strikes me as the most difficult aspect, and the only way to really get it would be to have it taught from the first word.

  3. There’s a scanned version here (via Digg). Same text, I presume.
    Also, there’s a Wikipedia stub that is moderately helpful for those unfamiliar with the concept of “shock worker”.

  4. It sounds like a Soviet course, with the shock workers and loafers and concrete.

  5. Aaah, ударники, that takes me back… :o)
    This reminds me a lot of my favorite Spanish textbook (1987, fourth edition). To quote from lesson 1:

    No son ustedes cooperativistas?
    Si, senorita, nosotros somos cooperativistas.
    Los obreros de choque son muy laborioros y ricos.

    Great textbook though, probably the best I’ve ever seen.

  6. Oh and as for the concrete mixer, I just have to share this: there is a wonderful Slovak phrase born in the times of the megalomaniacal communist-era projects during which almost a half of Slovak men worked in construction:
    Standard Slovak: On má kľúče od miešačky.
    Dialect: Vun ma kľučki od mišačky.
    Literally: He’s got the keys to the concrete mixer.
    Figuratively: He is the most important person here (i.e. nothing can be done without him and/or his approval).
    I recently heard it from a politican and I laughed my but off.

  7. The full first book is scanned (here). The .jpgs are a bit small, but perfectly legible.
    That said, I would love to hear recommendations for what to use to learn Russian. I’ve got two books and two sets of CDs – all reasonably priced – but it would be quite useful to hear from more experienced speakers about what they used/found useful/found useless.
    (My contribution, from Chinese: the Chinese govt. puts out a great set of Chinese textbooks which you can have shipped over for far less than it costs to buy any textbook here. Peking University Press put out a series of books that run 30-50 yuan a pop; each have a solid semester worth of content. As for CDs, I’d try to get something in “Beijing” accent; the Northeast provinces are more clear, but if you learn accented Chinese from the start, the more standard pronunciation will be a snap to understand.)

  8. James Crippen says

    Awesome. My Russian is getting rusty, and the library has two copies plus the teacher’s guide. I think I’ll practice some Russian this weekend!

  9. It sounds like a Soviet course, with the shock workers and loafers and concrete.
    There’s all the difference in the world between a Soviet course, produced in the Soviet Union and full of solemn evocations of friendship between peoples and the like, and a course that uses Soviet cliches for laughs.

  10. Roger Depledge says

    A pure gem! Contents that include “Stories” and “Rituals” — all life is there. And page 316 of the scanned version: “How to avoid answering a question – Advanced Level”. Any language teachers’ course that doesn’t include Lipson should be decertified immediately (mine didn’t).
    BTW Does anyone know more about Alexander Lipson? I can’t find any biographical details or reminiscences.

  11. Lipson’s Russian text is a work of art in itself. There’s some humor but not much satire, and overall it’s a pretty complex text. Sometimes it reads like a script for a Kira Muratova movie, sometimes like something post-Zoschenko, post-Platonov, post-Kharms.

  12. That “In tuxedos” destroyed me.

  13. Roger, you might want to hunt down Alexander Lipson in Memoriam, published in 1994 by Slavica. Or if you have access to JSTOR, you could check out this review of the book (with some biographical info on Lipson) from Slavic and East European Journal.

  14. My heartfelt thanks for uncovering this gem, which has caused hilarity all round in the office this morning.

  15. The best textbook ever – remember the concrete tigers in the concrete zoos? Looked after by concrete zoo-keepers? Although when I went to Russia as an exchange student in the late ’70s with nothing but Lipson vocabulary, and said “Ah! a shock-worker?” pointing to a statue, I got a pretty cross reply: “NO! It is the great poet Mayakovskij!”

  16. Wasn’t Slavica the outfit that published the wonderful “Dictionary of Russian Obscenity”?
    As for odd things to learn to say, in what language other than Sanskrit would one of the adjectives learned in the first semester be “three-headed”?

  17. I just remember that Ionesco wrote a French textbook in English with absurdist and surrealist sentence examples.I saw it and didn’t buy it. I could kick myself.

  18. “Mise en train”: Michel Benamou et Eugene Ionesco.

  19. Siganus Sutor says

    “Our plant is a concrete plant. Our brigade is a concrete one. Our plant is a concrete plant. And our task is concrete. Concrete, concrete, concrete, concrete…”
    That sounds really stressing !

  20. I assume this post is responsible for the current ad in the sidebar – “Fork Truck Training”. Which rather tickles my fancy.

  21. Roger Depledge says

    Thanks, Ben, for the references. The publicly available first page of the review article contained its own revelations:
    “…Alexander Lipson’s death just short of his fifty-second birthday in 1980,…”
    “…Lipson, language pedagogue extraordinaire, maverick entrepreneur, linguist’s linguist, travel tour designer and enfant terrible.”
    Now to work out, as a freelance bear of very little brain, how to join JSTOR.

  22. Roger, many libraries subscribe to JSTOR and provide access from computer terminals onsite. Some may provide offsite access as well for library cardholders.

  23. I just noticed that the Russian words for “park” “trolleybus” and “enthusiasm” are cognate with the English. Hmph. How unexotic.

  24. And I can’t get that bok out of my head now. I quote it with enthusiasm an the trolleybuses. It’s my new Monty Python.

  25. I learned what Russian I know from Lipson’s books (and patient teachers). They were hysterically funny. I think I still have my beat-up copies of the paperback “preliminary editions”.

  26. I learned Russian from the Lipson textboks in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Loved them. I saved them and have just pulled them out of a box in the attic to try them again. I wish I could find the tapes that went with the books. We students didnt own the tapes. We listened to them in the college’s language lab. If anyone knows where to find them, please let me know !!!!

  27. This is great. I don’t know a word of Russian, but I am in fact writing a little textbook or textbooklet myself, and trying to figure out how to structure the basic grammatical topics so the students don’t fall asleep from boredom. These lines seem so catchy that they stick in the mind as examples. (I would welcome any other advice on this topic).

  28. Thanks for bringing it back. I never knew about the Great Blinsk Swamp and its shoreline tuxedos, but it sounds suspiciously like a Salt Lake City scene 🙂

  29. Took the first class in high school eons ago. I still know how to say:

    – You stole my pencil. Why?
    — Simply so. (prosta tak) I like to steal pencils.
    – Then what am I going to write with?
    — That’s not my affair, but yours.

    and admittedly not much else, but still.

  30. David Marjanović says

    As for odd things to learn to say, in what language other than Sanskrit would one of the adjectives learned in the first semester be “three-headed”?

    Latin is a bit like that. You’re taught “hurry” long before any other verbs of motion, because that’s the one that’s conjugated in a regular way, so people hurry hither and thither long before they walk. You’re also taught a whole lot of military vocabulary, including several regular verbs for “kill”, long before “eat” (a bit irregular) and “drink” (as regular as any other consonant-stem verb).

  31. Similarly, in Russian you learn the past tense first, because it is absolutely regular and inflects only for gender and number (historically it is a participle), whereas the present tense is a mass of inherited irregularities and is learned later.

  32. people hurry hither and thither long before they walk

    And the only men you meet in the first few lessons are sailors and pirates.

  33. you learn the past tense first, because it is absolutely regular

    I think you mean “regular as compared with the present.” There is nothing regular, for instance, about stress placement.

  34. Similarly, in Russian you learn the past tense first
    Not in the text book I learned it from (Langenscheidts, mid 80s), where the present tense was introduced first; the first lesson was a letter starting “Дорогой Коля, как ты знаешь, я теперь – в Москве”. Funny, what kind of useless things our memory keeps while it discards other, more useful stuff…

  35. Odd to start you off with the familiar forms, which you will hardly ever be using in real life unless you get very much more embedded in Russian society than most learners ever will.

  36. Yes, indeed. The only thing I can say is that the approach of this text book wasn’t strictly about usability in everyday situations; there were a few scenes from daily life, but also a lot of stories and, in the later lessons, excerpts from Russian literature. And the scenes from daily life were not overly practical either – e.g., there was a shop scene, but it was about a woman buying cloth for sewing – not exactly the first priority of a traveller. The most practical thing was one lesson with examples for business correspondence. Perhaps they thought that the learner would need Russian mostly for trade with the USSR and for reading Russian literature, not for travelling – after all, it was published before perestroika.

  37. «я теперь – в Москве»

    I’m interested in the placement of the dash after the adverb. Is this a style choice, or is it dictated by a prescriptive rule?

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    “What is decadence? Decadence is to lie on the beach by the Great Blinsk Swamp and watch television. In tuxedos.”

    I really don’t see how that definition could be improved upon. It’s funny because it’s true…

  39. I don’t think it’s prescribed. The closest rule is putting dash instead of a copula. But here what is missing is some other verb like live. And dash is representing the missing verb.

  40. The dash replaces the copula here (“I am in Moscow now.”), and in the written norm it is prescribed in that function. I remember the book using this example to introduce both the fact that Russian doesn’t use present tense forms of copula and that it uses the dash to mark their “omission”. To be honest, I can’t guarantee that the dash came after теперь instead of directly after я. I’m writing from memory and can’t check, as I sold that book a quarter-century ago.

  41. January First-of-May says

    For what it’s worth, as a native Russian speaker, I feel that the dash makes more sense after теперь than directly after я. So you probably remember correctly.

    However, if I was writing that letter introduction, I probably would not have used a dash there at all (in either position). OTOH, something like “я теперь – москвич” would indeed require a dash (and I’m fairly confident of it being in the place where I put it).

  42. David Marjanović says

    in Russian you learn the past tense first

    I was taught the present first, with irregularities.

    because it is absolutely regular

    It is refreshingly regular compared to the present; but, apart from stress placement, a few tiny irregularities do exist, like the lack of -l in some masculine forms (umer “died”) to avoid certain consonant clusters.

    And the only men you meet in the first few lessons are sailors and pirates.

    Farmers! And probably poets, though I can’t remember. We moved on to the o-stems pretty soon.

    I’m interested in the placement of the dash after the adverb. Is this a style choice, or is it dictated by a prescriptive rule?

    I think it’s rather the placement of the adverb before the dash that is dictated – by Wackernagel’s law. Not unlike postposed “however” or “though” in English.

  43. postposed “however”

    There’s nothing obligatory about that: initial however is just fine. It was less common in the 19C than today, but it existed even then: see Pullum 2005.

  44. David Marjanović says

    There’s nothing obligatory about that:

    Of course not. What I meant to say is that when it’s postposed, it’s unstressed enough to group with the preceding word intonationally and trigger some version of Wackernagel’s law.

  45. Yes, I momentarily forgot farmers and poets. It all introduced a youngster to a strange picture of Roman culture.

  46. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Rodger C: though one Cato would have approved of (as long as the poets were not degenerate neoteroi, of course)

  47. cor blimey! 400 dollars for the good old Lipson! I say

  48. rejoice! good tidings!
    Apparently, the whole textbook is now available, in image form, page by page here

  49. — Of what aspect is the verb написа́+? Of the perfective or imperfective aspect?
    — I’d prefer not to argue about politics.
    — It’s not a question of politics, but of grammar.
    — In that case, I’d rather not argue about grammar.

  50. From a 2018 essay by Audrey Murray, A Love Letter to Concrete:

    Lipson was passionate about Russian and Soviet culture. He taught private classes out of his home in Cambridge, where he gained a reputation for his somewhat unorthodox approach. “[Lipson] often employs such devices as insulting or ridiculing his students to provoke them into responding in Russian,” a 1961 Harvard Crimson article reported. “The classes usually end in a song-fest in Russian, with Lipson accompanying the students on the guitar.”

  51. Thanks, that’s a great little piece!

  52. SFReader says
  53. That guy had listened to a lot of official Soviet speeches.

  54. I just remember that Ionesco wrote a French textbook in English with absurdist and surrealist sentence examples.

    About Ionesco and the book he was parodizing. This all is not just to the Assimil book that inspired him and to Chérel who wrote it. I have not seen (or do not remember my impression) Anglaise sans peine but Chérel exactly wanted to offer an alternative to school langauge lessons*. I saw later books (mostly Russian) and it is obvious that the authors are trying to be funny and are totally aware of the absurdity inherent in langauge teaching.

    As I understand the situation, Chérel joked and Ionesco expanded the joke. Now it is seen as “Ionesco used another dumb langauge course and turned it into a joke”.

    * I once read a very critical review on a site of some itnernet polyglot (an enthusiast of Russian and Arabic who offers his own courses, that’s why I read his site). He believes that it is impossible to learn a language from books (like learning to play a violin without playing it he says), that is, he thinks that I do not exist. On his forum a deaf guy asks him if he can recommend anything to deaf people, and receives no answer:) This made me curious, I mean, people who think that I do not exist are funny, and I read his review of Assimil. It has an official responce from Assimil, that explains my point above:

    La méthode Assimil is also called the intuitive method, which means you learn without even understand why you learn. But for me Alphonse Chérel had also some kind of intuition when he did that. Call this serendipity, call this whatever you want.

    As far as I know Alphonse Chérel hasn’t left any written memo about the way he worked at the beginning. But this doesn’t mean we do not know how it works at all.

    There is also a kind of strong tropisme in the méthode, which was created against the official ways of learning in school. From this point of view, Assimil was very disruptive at that time.

    But you have to be French or to be raised in France to understand this.

    I mean we do not know how it works at a scientific level. I dream of working with neuroscientists to understand what happens in the brain, but we’d need time and money to do this.

    Maybe one day.

  55. Udarniki did remind me Assimil, even though Assimil is maybe less extreme.

    Actually the French Breton textbook (not Assimil) that I was using also contained jokes hardly possible in a language textbook in Russia, e.g. a picture of a waiter making an obscene gesture. Our teacher, a Russian lady (or rather an Assyrian lady) who studied in Rennes also allowed herself sexual jokes (impossible in Russian classroom) and I first thought that it is what they do in France.

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